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Ari’s Mission: Educating Young Audiences on Conspiracy Theories Through Fictional Narratives

Ari’s Mission: Educating Young Audiences on Conspiracy Theories Through Fictional Narratives
1st May 2023 Linda Schlegel
In Insights


Narrative campaigns against extremism and conspiracy theories are popular and widely used tools to prevent and/or counter (violent) extremism (P/CVE). A number of models, guidelines, handbooks, and lessons have been brought forward to support P/CVE actors in developing impactful narrative campaigns. However, one element is conspicuously absent from the discourse: fictional storytelling. Current P/CVE campaigns are largely non-fictional – often based on the experiences of former extremists who share their personal stories with audiences. Fictional narratives are almost entirely absent from contemporary narrative campaigns against extremism and do not feature in any of the recommendations on the development of effective P/CVE campaigns. 

In an attempt to fill this gap and trial a fictional campaign in the P/CVE realm, modus|zad on behalf of the German Federal Agency of Civic Eduation developed a pilot project focused on raising awareness and increasing knowledge about conspiracy theories in young audiences (age 10+) via a fictional story. Based on state-of-the-art research on narrative persuasion and high-quality storytelling, ‘Ari’s Auftrag’ [Ari’s Mission] tells the story of a teenage alien faced with the dire consequences of a conspiracy theory spreading among the inhabitants of his planet. It is worth examining this project here as it constitutes one of the very few attempts to employ fictional storytelling in narrative campaigns against extremism and highlights that fictional storytelling is indeed a viable option for P/CVE actors. This Insight discusses the theoretical foundation of the project and calls for the use of more fictional storytelling in P/CVE narrative campaigns. 

The Theoretical Basis

The use of fictional narratives to influence audiences on a range of social issues has a long tradition, and narrative persuasion research provides ample evidence that fictional narratives shape audiences’ attitudes and perceptions. Entertainment-education campaigns – for instance, in the field of public health or development – often take the form of soap operas, TV shows, movies, radio or theatre plays with fictional plots. The persuasive effects of such fictional stories and their power to influence audiences on a range of issues ranging from climate change to stereotypes, the death penalty, or even overcoming genocidal violence, are well documented. As Gottschall summarises: “Research results have been consistent and robust: fiction does mold our minds.” This remains true even for stories low in external realism, i.e. stories which are not only fictional but take place in fantastical worlds and do not correspond to lived reality. Stories must be believable, have a high degree of internal coherence, and possess verisimilitude, but they do not have to be ‘realistic’ in order to be persuasive and shape audiences’ perceptions of (political and social) reality. 

There is no reason to believe that the evidence on the persuasive effects of fictional entertainment-education campaigns is not transferable to P/CVE campaigns. If fictional narratives have the ability to reduce out-group stereotyping, increase empathy, influence social norms, and may even change perceptions of violence, why would fictional stories not be effective in a P/CVE context?  While there have been calls for more fictional elements in P/CVE narrative campaigns, and the existing narrative persuasion literature clearly points to the persuasive effects fictional narratives can elicit, employing fiction is still a rarity in P/CVE. Hence, modusIzad devised a narrative campaign to trial fictional storytelling in P/CVE.

Ari’s Mission

Ari’s Mission seeks to explore the possibility of transferring insights on narrative persuasion from entertainment-education and narrative persuasion research to P/CVE. It presents young audiences (age 10+) with a fictional story on conspiracy theories:

Ari, a teenager living on planet Eiren, finds his society in turmoil after conflicts with other planets, natural disasters, and social issues among different groups polarise his fellow citizens. During this time, speculations that members of a migrant community of aliens from planet Atroposia have infiltrated Eiren with spies and seek to destroy Ari’s folk spreads on social media. Even some Eirens could have defected and become spies – nobody can be trusted. Ari is horrified that such a conspiracy theory is spreading and watches in agony as the dire consequences of the erosion of trust among Eiren’s citizens become evident. Scepticism turns into mistrust, mistrust into open hatred, and hatred into violence. 

Ari decides that he must take action to save his planet. To do so, he uses his superpower: time travelling. He travels across time to learn about previous conspiracy theories – where did they come from? How and why did they spread? What consequences did they cause? He travels to 17th-century England to learn about the ‘Popish Plot’, and to New York in the 1980s to examine the consequences of ‘Operation Infection’. Upon returning to his planet, Ari then gathers other young people, who do not believe that spies have infiltrated their society. Together they begin to develop counter-measures. The group discovers that while digital counter-speech efforts directed at anonymous profiles spreading the conspiracy often cause escalation, personal conversations and encouraging other bystanders to take a stance within their own social circles can lessen the detrimental impact of conspiracy theories.

The goal of the YouTube campaign is to provide a playful yet educational approach to the complex issue of conspiracy theories, to illustrate and raise awareness about the divisive implications of conspiracy narratives, and to empower young people to identify and counter conspiracy narratives. It was developed for both individual consumption and to be used in educational settings such as classrooms. As the campaign is one of the few P/CVE projects employing fictional storytelling, it contributes to both the theoretical underpinnings and practical knowledge of P/CVE narrative campaigns by illustrating the promises of fictional elements for narrative campaigns against extremism. 

Ari’s Mission is based on the following findings from narrative persuasion research in particular:

  • (Fictional) narratives have been found to elicit persuasive effects, because, compared to argument-based messages, narratives cause less reactance and counter-arguing in audiences. If they feel entertained, viewers tend to go along with the story, do not suspect a persuasive attempt, and hence do not display reactance, which increases the persuasive effects. Counter-arguing is reduced because arguments are implied in the plot rather than made explicit, which means that it is difficult for audiences to counter-argue. Ari never explicitly argues against conspiracy theories, the plot instead shows the detrimental consequences of conspiracy narratives, which is more difficult to counter-argue.
  • Identification with protagonists is one of the key determinants of narrative persuasion effects. However, identification is not contingent upon physical similarity. Characters must be believable and relatable, but not necessarily look like the target audience or correspond to reality. “A story may take place on Mars, and the characters may even be Martians, but they must interact in a way that matches our understanding of social interaction, or be motivated to achieve goals that correspond with motives and goals that one might encounter in one’s real world”, write Hamby and colleagues. Consequently, telling a story about aliens on a fictional planet does not hinder the persuasive impact of the campaign. Identification processes with Ari are encouraged by displaying him as a teenager who loves burgers, is an avid social media user, loves to hang out with his friends, and is interested in (social) activism.
  • Conspiracy theories are a complex and often controversial issue. Audiences may have preconceived perceptions about conspiracy narratives or may even believe some aspects of them. Such preconceived perceptions may increase the likelihood that audiences engage in counter-arguing when messages challenge their existing beliefs. Fictional narratives provide P/CVE actors with a chance to circumvent existing beliefs and decrease the likelihood that audiences reject the narrative content even if it does not correspond to their beliefs. The fictional setting may serve as a proxy for a real-life issue. By transferring the issue into a fictional setting, P/CVE actors can increase the audiences’ psychological distance from the issue in question and discuss controversial content while reducing the likelihood that audiences’ existing beliefs influence narrative reception and decrease the persuasive impact of the story. Because the narrative is clearly fictional, audiences must dedicate a lot of cognitive resources to counter-argue it. Most viewers will not do so and simply go along with the story. Hence, fictional narratives may serve as proxies to encourage audiences to engage with content they may reject or counter-argue in argument-based messages while retaining the persuasive effect of the narrative on real-life attitudes and perceptions.


Fictional storytelling is rarely used in contemporary P/CVE narrative campaigns. However, research on narrative persuasion and entertainment-education campaigns indicates that fictional narratives can elicit similar persuasive effects to non-fictional narratives. This remains true for narratives low in external realism. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that fictional narratives could be successfully employed in the P/CVE context. The use of fiction could significantly diversify the pool of narratives told in P/CVE campaigns and, as discussed above, could sometimes offer benefits non-fictional narratives may not have. While Ari’s Mission is currently only a pilot project, and more insights into the applications and effects of fictional P/CVE narrative campaigns must be generated in the future, the campaign demonstrated that fictional storytelling can be a viable option for P/CVE actors. The use of fictional elements may generate further insights into the development of effective campaigns. Consequently, more fictional storytelling should be employed in future narrative campaigns against extremism and all types of fictional narratives should be trialled and evaluated in the P/CVE context.